Henrietta Lacks


In 1951, a young mother, Henrietta Lacks visited The Johns Hopkins Hospital complaining of cervical pain. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer and began to undergo radiation treatments, which was the best course of treatment at the time.

A sample of her cancer cells retrieved during a biopsy were sent to a nearby tissue lab. It was soon discovered that Lacks’ cells were unlike any of the others he had ever seen: where other cells would die, Mrs. Lacks’ cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours.

Today, these incredible cells— nicknamed “HeLa” cells— are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. They have been used to test the effects of radiation and poisons, to study the human genome, to learn more about how viruses work, and played a crucial role in the development of the polio vaccine and even the COVID-19 vaccine. Although Mrs. Lacks ultimately passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, her cells continue to impact the world.

Sadly Lacks’ cells were taken without her consent, and the doctors that harvested her cells made millions from their discoveries. To this day, Lack’s family is still fighting to protect future people from having their genetic material taken without consent, and if consent is given, families should receive credit by name and receive monetary compensation.